Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway

The bull ring at Ronda, Spain, March 2016

My Spanish students were always very opinionated. They seized up at the awkward exam questions but with other topics – the test their Latin teacher gave them, feminism and bull fighting – they were fluid and non-hesitant speakers. Bull fighting, they despised: a cruel sport for machismo old men who ought to wake up to the modern age, morality and manners.

Even in Hemingway’s day, the custom of bull fighting was often considered barbaric. He seemed to predict the slow decline and even to accept the change, with reluctance. His book, which I’ve read and found fascinating, is however not barbaric. It’s odd. Between the dense facts and the strings of poetic description, the nostalgia and the adulation, are tangents on writing and society, parenthood and death. It’s not a book that pretends, but it is odd.

I suppose, from a modern point of view, that is, a Christian point of view, the whole bullfight is indefensible; there is clearly much cruelty, there is always danger, either sought or unlooked for, and there is always death, and I should not try to defend it now, only to tell honestly the things I have found true about it.

Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

My problem with Hemingway is that the first book I ever read by him wasn’t a novel. It wasn’t the Old Man and the Sea which is supposedly admirable piece of literature, but I found a little tedious (perhaps I’m just too young still to get it). It wasn’t For Whom the Bell Tolls, which has in it all that macho, yet defeatist, fighting in it. It was A Moveable Feast, which, published after Hemingway’s suicide, is a memoir of those years in Paris where Hemingway screwed up his first marriage and knew it.

And it’s the self-awareness that I kind of find myself admiring. It’s the self-awareness which I found myself compelled by in A Moveable Feast, and which the glimpses of throughout Death in the Afternoon compelled me to keep turning the page, even if I lost track of which matador was which. More than anything, though, the book was a reminder to be careful. We jump to conclusions so quickly and on so little evidence. We are fast to speak, fast to criticize, fast to cast out moral judgements, yet remain so unaware of what we’re talking about.

It’s easy to attack the visible cruelty, it seems so much more acute. But much harder is recognizing and attacking the silent and invisible cruelty that hides unseen. How many of our own enjoyments result in harm to others, whether they be people working in inhumane factory settings, through the land that’s damaged in the hunt from raw materials or the dumping of waste. How many animals live and die for us in our current lifestyles, how many are affected by our impact on the environment, and how many of them live good lives?

My Spanish students were children, eager to be heard, eager to have the right opinion. Their passion, their beliefs, their insistence that the world must become a better place was heart-warming. In many ways they were much better at expressing themselves than older generations who might wait to check their audience is on their side before opening their mouths. They had lots to say; they had much to learn.

Suppose a Sentence by Brian Dillon

By Posted on Location: 2min read
Suppose a Tulip. The Netherlands, 2017

Suppose a Sentence starts, in the way many books do, with a list of nice things intelligent people have said about the author and his work, but because this is an unabashedly intellectual book (a book for people who proudly think of themselves as being intellectual) then this fawning includes words like ‘erudite’, which to me looks like it means something inappropriate for polite company; ‘elegiac’ which I don’t know how to pronounce has little to do with the Spanish verb ‘elegir’; and ‘edifying’, which to me initially reads as closer to the word ‘edit’ than ‘educate’, like the book is one that will edit your mind, perhaps.

Some of these words strike me as fanciful.

This very good book (I’m paraphrasing) “…serves as both an autobiographia literaria and a vital exemplar of how deeply literature and language can matter in life.” I think Maggie Nelson is saying here that the book is a record of some things the author has read… but alas, as she’s using words not in my dictionary, I’m not sure. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for fancy words; I just may not understand them. Suppose a Sentence invokes a lot of shoulder shrugging.

I don’t know. Or I don’t know exactly. These apologetic phrases crop up all the time in my classes. I often teach with the dictionary open in one tab and WordReference in the next, pre-empting my students’ questions. I don’t trust my pronunciation or my spelling, and so I invariably refer to dictionaries and phonetic transcriptions to guarantee that the words my students are learning are standard, ‘correct’. It turns out that a lot of words have many meanings; sometimes sifting through to identify the writer’s intent is an intense challenge. Sometimes my students think they know what a word means, and I have to push them to reassess.

The bright light. The intelligent look. Her bright eyes …?

Careful listening, close reading, real, acute attention… these moments of deep focus can reward us with a new perspective, an insight, a fresh appreciation. And I guess that’s what this book, Suppose a Sentence, is all about. When the pandemic has bound you to the house, your social endeavours have fallen apart, all plans disintegrated, then don’t fret: one can always suppose a sentence.

If only I knew what it meant to suppose a sentence…


The quotation’s attribution reads:  Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts.

‘Suppose a sentence’ is a Gertrude Stein phrase.

On the stylistic choosing of words

Flowers. Style. Flowery style. Styled flowers. Tulips so stereotypically the Netherlands, 2017.

Today, when reading Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence, I learnt that the title structure, such as mine here, starting ‘on’ was typical of Montaigne, who I haven’t read, and was played with by Virginia Woolf, who I have read, creating titles such as ‘On Illness’. Dillon writes about the introductory sentence of Woolf’s essay On Illness, which I feel I have read, although maybe I have merely read that oft-quoted first sentence. I say oft-quoted meaning I’m sure I’ve seen it quoted before and therefore assume that it’s the sort of sentence that people who have sentences to hand for demonstration frequently choose to show.

If my words are wandering today, it’s because at some point, I took a turn off the main path, followed a goat track, tripped over an unexpecting branch and left my life in a pickle trying to carve a route all of its own. Sometimes this route is carved with a machete, sometimes the butter knife. At the moment – pandemic and all – it’s definitely the butter knife style of progression I’m witnessing. In other words, I’m feeling a little disorientated. Slow even.


I am being chased by the word ‘obdurate’. Yesterday I had to look it up in the dictionary. Today I find Dillion uses it. As does the article I read in the London Review of Books this afternoon. The same thing happened fifteen years ago with the word ‘altruistic’, which followed me around until I wasn’t sure whether it was a normal everyday word, and I was dim, or it was a poncy word and better left unsaid. ‘Altruistic’ makes it into a video on elephants I’m studying with one of my students. Selfless elephants are good at caring for one another.

My writing is undoubtedly, or indubitably, mutating (albeit in a butter-knife fashion of progress). I’m reading so much and writing so much it can hardly do anything but change; yet I’m doing so ploddingly, we can hardly call anything here machete action. That said, I’m pretty stubborn – or shall I say obdurate? – about writing. It’s like a compulsion: an addiction to unravelling a language that refuses to be pinned down, my mongrel tongue, idiolectical phrasing, use of words like ‘happenence’.


But my writing mutates to what exactly? And my life is wandering where? And are the two irrevocably connected. And for a woman who spends so much time putting words on the page, why is my spelling so atrocious sometimes? And…


In addition to Dillon’s book on sentences, I find myself reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, which throws you on the first page with its ‘—“I prefer men to cauliflowers,”—’ entrapped in two em-dashes, giving you no guidance as to what you’re reading and leaving you pretty much confused until a third of the way through the book where you settle down praying that dear Mrs Woolf will keep the surprising cauliflowers out of her prose and instead give you something that resembles a story.

‘—“I prefer men to cauliflowers,”—’ such a line would have been better placed in Terry Pratchett. I’ve just finished the father’s copy of Moving Pictures and that has a section referring to cabbages. Cabbages, cauliflowers… Although Pratchett most loved to use his em-dashes to end a line of dialogue. Thus the phrase might need a slight stylistic rearrangement… “I prefer men to cauli—”

And then The Black Notebook by Patrick Modiano

By Posted on Location: 2min read

My notebooks are black. All except the one bought from the stationery shop in Valparaiso which is bright yellow. There wasn’t much choice. Not unless I was willing to deal with squares, and I wasn’t. Unlike the protagonist in Modiano’s novella – can you call something shorter than two hundred pages a novel? – the protagonist who writes lists of names – people, streets, buildings or really anything that will fit into an unexpected list – I have failed to record many of the names that illustrate my days in my black notebooks. The yellow notebook does worse than the black ones. I bought it at a point where I had time on my hands and its records fall in the crack between truth and lie. This is not important. What I’m trying to write about is Modiano’s The Black Notebook and in all honesty, even though the notebook is mentioned every few pages or so, the notebook itself is irrelevant to the book. The book is an excuse for Modiano to write Modiano.

Jean, the protagonist – who is Patrick in Family Record or whichever of the other French-named Modiano protagonists who wander through Paris overly late at night in their youth and later become a writer – Jean could never be a woman. This, in the same way as how Cortázar’s Horacio Oliveira in his novel Hopscotch could never be a woman. We women have to be taken out late at night and escorted home. If, in the film, Midnight in Paris, the male protagonist, Gil, had been a woman, then his fiancé (assuming still a heterosexual relationship) would have questioned her walking the streets of a foreign city past midnight, alone. As he is a man, nobody seems all that much concerned.

To walk such streets alone as a woman is irresponsible. Especially poorly lit city streets. And yet it’s exactly such streets that hold a certain literary charm. It’s the edge, the faded light and the blurred shadows which make it so fascinating. Modiano writes what Edward Hopper painted in his 1942 painting, Nighthawks. It’s a world just past closing time. It’s not a world of busy bars and nightclubs, but the public bus station at two o’clock in the morning when few people are around. You’ve begun to sober up. You’ve been elsewhere, perhaps eaten, or not eaten, although even if you’ve not eaten much, you don’t notice the sensation of hunger because your mind is elsewhere. Floating. Life stretches out in front of you; there’s a long walk home.

Reading ‘Family Record’ by Patrick Modiano

By Posted on Location: 4min read
The French countryside, Autumn 2016.

In the northern-hemisphere autumn of 2020, in the few weeks we had where the bookshops were open, I walked into the spacious old textile mill at Saltaire and purchased a book entitled Family Record. An impulse buy. I’d run my fingers down the book’s spine, let it fall open in my palms and felt the quality of the thick paper it was printed on. I hadn’t heard of the book, but I’d heard of the author – a Frenchman by the name of Patrick Modiano – and I like a nicely printed book.

The first Modiano book I read, and fell in love with, was a collection of novellas, published together under the title Suspended Sentences. How I came to own Suspended Sentences or even when I read it is a mystery to me. My copy is a version translated by Mark Polizzotti and printed in 2014 after Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature; Family Record has the same translator, publisher and a similar shiny mark of a prize-winning author on the cover. I think I bought Suspended Sentences in Leeds on some shopping trip that had led me to seek comfort in Waterstones, but it could have been anywhere. I know I had it sitting on my shelf for some time before I finally read it, and I’d bought it because it was modern and French and therefore like nothing else I was reading, but although I am certain that I have read it – an impression remains – I cannot be sure when. I wrote no review and appear to have recorded it on no list.

 I took the book, Family Record, to the till so that I could pay, and the masked man behind the counter gushed with enthusiasm for my choice. He hadn’t read Suspended Sentences – which I recommended to him – but he had read other books by Modiano and been enthralled.

If you are one of those people who like to be pulled through a novel, dropped from one cliff-hanging chapter decisively into the action of the next, then Modiano is not the author for you. If he plots, there remains no evidence. Nor does he tie up any loose ends. In fact, he seems to go out of the way to make the threads of his stories fray, their threadbare fabric might be full of character, but these characters don’t necessarily do anything. I read his work hoping for demystification and close the book mystified as to how I can be so in love with the clarity of his writing and yet endlessly disappointed by its obscurity.

In introducing the novellas of Suspended Sentences, and reflecting on his work translating the stories, Polizzotti states “Generally speaking, and despite the ambiguities in his narrative strategy, Modiano’s prose style is straightforward and clear – by which I do not mean simple – and I have aimed above all to preserve that limpid quality in this translation.”

I look at a page at random and I try to work out what it is that I like so much about his writing style. He would be, if one were running a writing class, an eloquent example of the power of varying sentence length. Watch the full stops and you find short sentences embedded in longer sentences, snuggled in the middle of them, pretending simplicity without ever being simple. But that’s not it. There are staccato moments, especially perhaps when we’re in the mind of a boy who’s dealing with what’s laid out in front of him one step at a time. It’s memory, but like when you’ve lost your keyring and you’re trying to piece back together where you’ve been, vocalizing the options, wondering what you could have possibly been doing with your hands that led to the abandonment of the door key. Which surface did you drop them on?

Then there’s a great repetition held in the verbs. By which I don’t mean that the verbs themselves seem to repeat, they don’t. Or well, sometimes they do, but not excessively so. But that verbs are used to build up the scene, give the texture of the scene. They don’t tend to be complex or flowery verbs. They tend to be quite common verbs. Yet they build up gradually, one after another, acting to give weight to a character.

As an example, take a look at these verbs, used in a scene opened at random from the novella Afterimage to describe a man’s movements.

… stationed, waited, crossed, planted (himself), crossed, standing, blocked, turned, following, stopped, folded, stood out, stood, shrugged, strode off…

Suspended Sentences pg 29-31.

 So I’m left feeling that although there’s something ethereal about the overall pattern of Modiano’s fragments, each individually is weighted and solid. Through some hard-working verbs, his work grounds itself in the names of people and places, dates and ages, car models and the patterns of wallpaper.

Either way, I’ve two more of his books ordered and shipped and I’m hoping they’ll be gracing my front door in a day or two.

Conjunctions and Disjunctions by Octavio Paz

I went to my Italy photos to look for something religious. Instead I found this slightly disorientating image. Verona, Italy, April 2018.

If I had been in a bookshop, I wouldn’t have bought this book. I might have picked it up off the shelf, but if I had looked at the language, and tried to understand any paragraph at random, I would have felt stupid and popped it straight back on the shelf.

As it was, I was looking for something by Alejo Carpentier in an online second-hand bookshop and typed in the name ‘Octavio Paz’ because I’d come across the name a few times and knew that he’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I knew he was a poet, but I wasn’t sure what else he’d written. I wanted to just check and see if there was anything cheap going that would give me a taste for his work and tell me if I would like to read more of it, after all, I was already making an order and one more would do no harm. On reflection, one couldn’t exactly describe the blurb as the most faithful depiction of what was to come – it suggested a history of humankind, and so I expected a history book.

Then again, having read the book, I still couldn’t write an accurate blurb

Furthermore, even though I have now read this book, I have no more idea whether or not I like his writing. I’m not even sure how to describe what the book was about. I had expected something about Mexico and instead I found myself reading about the contrast between Asian religions and Christianity. Mix this with some of Freud’s ideas and a surrealist infatuation, and you get a history of mankind which is quite unlike anything that I have ever come across before.

Sometimes, I felt completely lost, like he was trying to make a point, but I had lost the starting position and couldn’t quite step beyond my own perspective into the wider one he was offering. Like trying to walk on clouds. The language wasn’t exactly easy going. There were philosophical or historical references which I could make no connection with. What would make this book better, I concluded, would be a detailed glossary of the terms and individuals referenced in the book. A version heavy with footnotes could guide the modern ordinary reader through the jargon and possibly more accessible for the ordinary reader. But would the ordinary reader really want to read this?

Yet, something made me continue reading

I found the second half of the book much easier going than the first, although maybe that was because, by the time I was reading the final two essays, I was also investigating who exactly this Octavio Paz chap was.

I headed to the London Review of Books and searched through their archive for references to the poet. First, I came across a recent article (November 2019) which talked about the problems resulting from the fact that when they died, neither Octavio Paz nor his wife had a will or a clear descendant.

The article outlined the couple’s romance, from their meeting in India where Paz was stationed as the Mexican ambassador, until he left diplomatic service following the October 1968 massacre in Mexico City. Hundreds of protesting students were killed by soldiers and police. Paz and his wife first went to Cambridge, where he worked at the university, and then Mexico.

Knowing that he lived and worked in India and took interest in the cultures and religions of the region, gives a context to the writing of Conjunctions and Disjunctions.

I continued my research

Real isn’t real, an article by Michael Wood in July 2013, reviews the translation of The Poems of Octavio Paz edited and translated by Eliot Weinberger. This article shares some of Paz’s poetry in both languages, and it was interesting to get a taste of how clear his poetry reads in comparison to Conjunctions and Disjunctions. But mostly it was useful to comprehend the relationship Paz’s work has with the surrealist movement. Wood talks about how ‘the ghosts of literary otherness never quite go away’ and mentions how the unconscious and the dreamworld shape the poet’s work.

My reading helped me understand the context for the book but gave little illumination regarding the actual content. I find myself unable to describe quite what I read. There were sentences impossible to comprehend followed by lines which hit you and made you think.

The truth is that contemporary art has not given us an image of the body: this is a mission that we have turned over to couturiers and public-relations men. This is not a defect of today’s art, but of society.

Conjunctions and Disjunctions, Octavio Paz

Couturiers, for anyone like me who doesn’t use this word every day, are the people of the fashion industry who design and sell clothes, especially high-end women’s fashion.

Then there is the popularity of sports, which has created a confusion between vigor and beauty, physical skill and erotic wisdom.

Conjunctions and Disjunctions, Octavio Paz

And touching on the art of writing:

Tantric metaphors are not only intended to hide the real meaning of rites from intruders; they are also verbal manifestations of the universal analogy that is the basis of poetry. These texts are governed by the same psychological and artistic necessity that caused our Baroque poets to build a language of their own within the Spanish language, the same necessity that inspired the language of Joyce and the Surrealists: the conception of writing as the double of the cosmos.

Conjunctions and Disjunctions, Octavio Paz

So it’s a book which I wouldn’t have ordinarily read

And yet, somehow it has sunk its strange claws into me. It’s a different sort of read, one which I can’t entirely follow, but which feels like it stretches my brain a little in a way that is good for it. I wonder if The Labyrinth of Solitude and Other Writings, which is supposedly about Mexico, would be quite as challenging.


Conjunctions and Disjunctions, Octavio Paz, translated by Helen Lane, 1969

Real isn’t Real, Michael Wood, London Review of Books, 04 July 2013

On Octavio Paz and Marie-José Tramini, Homero Aridjis, translated by Chloe Aridjis, London Review of Books, 21 November 2019